- FROM DUST TO DYLAN
For over twenty-five years, Kenny Aaronson has been recognized as a world-class rock and roll bassist. Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, Kenny started playing bass at age 15, and soon became a regular on the New York scene. Most of us first heard Kenny’s playing on the 1973 Stories’ hit "Brother Louie," which shot to the top of the American charts in September of that year. Since then he has gone on to record and tour with some of the biggest names in the business, including Hall and Oates, Rick Derringer, and Bob Dylan.
I had the honor of working with Kenny recently in recording tracks for my new album. His youthful enthusiasm is contagious and his chops are still fresh. In between takes, we discussed his long and illustrative career. Kenny’s credentials read like a veritable who’s who of modern rock and roll.
Tom Guerra: So, what first got you started in this business, and do you remember your first decent setup?
Kenny Aaronson: As a child, I had wanted to play an instrument, but wasn’t sure what it was. I also have an older brother who was a drummer, who was into rock n’ roll, but at an early age he went completely classical. He studied classical percussion at Juilliard, played in the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, that whole bit…but around 11 years old, I decided it would be drums like my brother, and then The Beatles hit, and that was it…Ringo, Ludwig, what else was there?!! I got a little Rogers kit, and started really listening to the bass and drums on records. I always keyed into the rhythm section, and the monophonic "Hi-Fi" I listened to seemed to accentuate the bass. So I started to really key in on the bass, and watching rock n’ roll shows like "Hullabaloo" and "Shindig."…that bass player in the Shindig House orchestra playing that Fender bass just got to me. I’d stand around the mirror with a hockey stick around my neck, and make believe I was in a band. Soon after that my mother got me a cheap bass for $55, something I fondly call a "Yokohama special." I was probably around 14 at this point. I struggled for awhile with it. My brother was playing a lot with guys in the New York Rock N’ Roll ensemble, including arranger Michael Kamen and Mark Snow who now writes the music for the X-files…the bass player needed a bass so I lent him mine for awhile, then when I got it back I started rolling. One of the first things I learned was the bass line for The Byrds version of "Mr. Tamborine Man"…
TG: So at what point did you join Dust?
KA: We moved to another neighborhood in Brooklyn, and it was filled with musicians. At this point I started learning a lot of simple and root bass lines, like a basic 1-3-5, dominant seventh lines, real basic stuff. Through an early band I was in, I was exposed to early Rolling Stones, early soul music, and we began practicing every day. So, through that situation, I fell into Dust. They already existed, but they needed a bass player. They were doing covers of Stones, The Who, a lot of English rock. I was in eighth grade, and we spent a few years just rehearsing…every single day. I dropped out of high school around this time, this was around ’68… My folks weren’t thrilled at first, but they came to accept it. The guitar player, Richie Wise, started writing with a lyricist, Kenny Kearner, and we started to take it further. Over a period of a few years, we started making demos, and eventually we got hooked up with Domenic Facilia, who got us signed to Neil Bogart’s first label, Kama Sutra records. We were Neil’s first experiment with hard rock before he found KISS. Dust did a lot of heavy stuff, some experimental, and I got to play steel guitar, slide guitar on almost every track of the first album, and I’m a bass player!
TG: What was your setup at this point?
KA: Before we got the record deal, I had two Standel amps, with a Rickenbacker 4003 and a few Fender basses. The big thing then was to go around to all your friends and borrow all their amplifiers for your gigs. We’d go up on stage and have these HUGE Frankenstein stacks of amps…everything was jerry-rigged with coiled cords…Fenders, Acoustics, Standels, Marshalls…it was really funny. Then after we got signed, I went out to Manny’s and Sam Ash’s and got myself four Acoustic 360 bottoms and two heads. This was serious sh*t…We were loud! I went with the drummer Mark Bell (who is known today as Marky Ramone), and said "Mark, John Bonham’s got a 26’ bass drum, you’ve gotta get yourself a 28"…" so he did!
TG: From there, you went to Stories, right? "Brother Louie" was a great record …
KA: Well, Dust recorded two albums, in ’71 and ’72, and they have since become cult classics, often bootlegged and found on cd today. Domenic, the manager, had also been managing Stories, and they needed a bass player. Nothing happened with their first album, and they were falling apart. They went in the studio as session players for the band "Exuma" and recorded a demo of "Brother Louie"..for this other band. And Neil Bogart heard (singer) Ian Lloyd’s scratch vocal, and said "this is it!…this is going to be a number one hit for you!" And it was! So we went in and recorded it as Stories, and they re-released the second album with it on it and it shot up the charts.
Then, we did another album after that, but the record company kept pressuring us to do more songs like "Brother Louie" that weren’t as good. Stories was really into art rock – Ian Lloyd was a Genesis fanatic, he didn’t want to know about "Brother Louie"…so we were using mellotrons, doing these sophisticated songs, and then we’d have to stick on 2-3 songs that were bad "Brother Louie" imitations…the record company said "do more Brother Louie" type songs, and it didn’t work, it backfired. So it killed the band. At the time, I was playing a Rick 4003 stereo with roundwound strings, which I was using in stereo. I put the neck pickup through the Acoustic 360, and the treble pickup through a Sunn Coliseum stack. Pretty awesome…the Chris Squire thing had taken hold. I also used a ’58 P-bass and an old Fender Jazz bass with Stories.
After Stories, I got a call from the keyboard player of Hall and Oates named Don York, this was in 1974, and he invited me to play with them. I toured with Hall and Oates for about a year, we were opening up for Lou Reed, believe it or not, and Hall and Oates had been known at this point for being an acoustic duo, and all of a sudden, they released an electric album. Entitled "War Babies," it was produced by Todd Rundgren, which was a departure for them. So, they’d mix it up by playing an acoustic first set, then bringing on the band for the second half. And we’d watch everybody leave. But it was cool, a nice experience, and it was nice to be part of it. I learned a lot from them…never any regrets.
TG: And from there, to Derringer?
KA: Nope, not yet…from there I hooked up with Leslie West… it was v-e-r-y interesting (ha, ha!)…it was great to play with Leslie and Corky, and the rhythm guitar player was Mick Jones, who went on to form Foreigner a few years later. Then Corky quit and we got in Carmine Appice, which was great. Leslie and I are still friends today…
Shortly after that, I got a phone call from Rick Derringer, who said…"hey Kenny, I’m putting a band together and I thought you’d be interested in being part of it." So, I hooked up with Rick for three years and six records. And that was great, we had a GREAT time. We toured constantly for three years, playing every large place that existed in the United States, as well as every dump club in between. Everywhere. Either headlining the small places or second on the bill at the large arenas and coliseums. We were second on the bill to every large band doing a tour back then, from Aerosmith to Foreigner, to Boston and Peter Frampton. We were on all those shows when the "Frampton Comes Alive" album was being recorded.
One of the highlights for me was when we were second on the bill two days in a row for Led Zeppelin, at "Bill Graham’s Day On The Green" shows in San Francisco, which was an amazing, amazing experience playing to 60,000 people per day. We got to watch John Bonham and John Paul Jones from the side of the stage and they were wailing away. It was amazing.
But Rick was amazing too….and I think he is still an absolutely incredible guitar player. I once saw him jam with Les Paul and it was just great…he knew all his changes, and to do that he obviously had studied technique.
TG: Who were some of your favorites around this time?
KA: Of course Zeppelin…I always had a preference for the English rock bands. I liked American soul music, but when it came to rock guitar, no one could do it for me like the English. I did later get into Mike Bloomfield, but that was years later. People like Jeff Beck were great…
TG: I just saw him the other night and he’s still amazing!
KA: I believe it…
TG: So what did you like most about the Derringer experience?
KA: Well, we had a lot of fun…Rick was a party boy…we had a great time, going out there every night and just rocking! We had unboundless energy…and Rick just exploded every night. Rick was very generous with how he took care of everybody, he was very cool with his band. We’re still friends too. The only thing that didn’t happen for us was sell a large amount of records, but we still had fun, which is what rock n’ roll is all about.
After Rick, I played with Edgar Winter for a bit, then in the early 80’s I hooked up with Billy Squier for his breakthrough album "Don’t Say No." Toured with him, that was great rock n’ roll. After Billy, I played with Foghat, and played on their last tour before they officially disbanded. Roger Earl and Lonesome Dave were the two nicest cats to be around. Lonesome Dave turned me into a Johnny Cash fanatic. We’d travel the U.S. and he’d lay all this incredible music on me. With Foghat I just used one of their setups with a Fender bass.
TG: Speaking of setups, what do you consider to be your ultimate in terms of getting your tone?
KA: I tell you, the day that I found a Gallien-Krueger 800 head combination with 2 Hartke 4x10’s, that was heaven to me. I started using that in 1985, and I’ve used it ever since. I love that combination, it works for me every time, everywhere, with everyone I’ve played with since.
For guitars, I still have the ’58 P-Bass, I have a ’63 P-Bass that’s great, I have a Spectre that’s active, and I’m using a few ESP J-styled basses. Another GREAT instrument I picked up for $100 from some guy in the street is this maple neck Ibanez RoadStar, that has DiMarzio’s in it. Its simply as good as any Fender that ever was. As you have heard, this bass sounds great and records really well. I love this bass, I use it with LaBella nylon tape wound strings. Another great combination is the Gallien head with an (Ampeg) SVT 8x10 bottom. I like a fat, warm bass sound. I don’t need a Victor Wooten type of sound, trebly type of sound, it works great for some people but its not my sound. For me, I’ve gone back to being very old school about my philosophy. My heart and soul comes from the 60’s and I like a bass sounding big. I’ve always been into the fat, James Jamerson sound, and playing rootsy rock n’ roll with it.
I used to have a load of old instruments that I’d keep around, but for me my favorite instruments are the ’63 P-Bass, the ’58 which I use for recording only, the early ESP J-basses. I love finding old stuff, I don’t care what the condition, if it feels well, plays well, and records well, I’ll use the bass. I’m not into snob appeal, I don’t need a $4000 instrument…if its right, its right, whether you paid $50 for it or $1000. I have an old Danelectro longhorn bass that I play on gigs, and it has a HUGE sound, great for blues especially. It sits in the track and you can hear every note. I have a 60’s Kay bass that I got from Robert Gordon that looks like a piece of furniture. Still trying to figure out where to use that one…I also like Gibsons, Thunderbirds sound great, and I had an old EB-3 that got that Jack Bruce, Andy Fraser sound. You run that through a Marshall and it sounded like geese farts…
TG: So, by the mid ‘80’s…
KA: I played with Sammy Hagar, Michael Shrieve and Neil Schon in HSAS and that was fun. And after one of the shows one night in San Francisco, I went to catch one of the Stray Cats shows over at another club, and I had to meet Brian Setzer because I thought he was so great. And about a year to the day later, I backed Brian up on the MTV "Guitar Greats" special…that was incredible…We had Brian, David Gilmour, Steve Cropper, Dickie Betts, Tony Iommi, Lita Ford, Dave Edmunds…and it was at that show where Brian asked me to join his band for the "Knife Feels Like Justice" album and tour. That was a smokin’ band.
Then after Brian’s tour, I hooked up with Billy Idol and Steve Stevens for the "Whiplash Smile" tour with Tommy Price on drums. It was great, really an energetic band, Billy was in his prime.
From Billy, I hooked up with Bob Dylan in 1988.
TG: That must have been something…
KA: Yeah, Bob and I got along great, he was very straighforward with me and I really enjoyed playing with him. I played with him throughout 1988 and into 1989, and then I had some health problems that I had to deal with, and unfortunately for me, Bob had gigs to do and he ended up getting Tony Garnier, who’s a friend of mine. But I’m still here and healthy now
TG: So, you feeling good these days?
KA: Yeah, I’m feeling really good. Most people who know me know what happened, but it was a health thing and not an abuse thing… I want to make that clear. It took awhile for me to get back into the swing of things, but after Bob I did a few tours with Dave Edmunds, who is really great. Dave is great to play with, and I got to play a lot of high energy stuff.
I also did a tour of the States, Australia, and Japan with Mick Taylor. I loved playing with Mick, we got along great, and I love his guitar playing. He’s one of those guys who can play just one note, and you know who it is…he’s got a really distinctive sound.
Then I hooked up with Joan Jett and played with her for four years. Did her "Pure and Simple" album in ’94 or so, then in that period of time, I got a call to audition for The Stones.
TG: How did that come about?
KA: Some friends of mine were involved in the band, and they submitted my resume, my picture, and some stuff I’d done, and next thing I knew my girlfriend is like "Kenny, Mick is on the phone…" It was great and a blast! So, I went down to S.I.R. soundstage in Manhattan and played with them for about an hour and a half. The amazing thing about it was – they were all my size, they weren’t these larger than life figures I thought they would be.
They were so sweet and considerate, knowing that I was nervous. Keith offered me a drink, he had a cooler stocked with Stolychnia (vodka) and I said "maybe later, thanks." But after the first song, I was still so nervous, I said "Ah Keith, can I have that drink now?" But they were really charming and non-intimidating…
TG: How did they sound?
KA: Keith was SO loud…and it was that clean type of loud…which is more intense. I could hardly hear Ronnie good, and I had to listen to Charlie through monitors, because he plays so light. We were all on this stage and Jagger was dancing around, and Keith was doing all his famous moves with the arms. We did a bunch of stuff, old stuff, new things, even "Memory Motel" with Mick playing keyboards. And as we finished up, I was putting my bass down, and Ronnie and Keith were on either side of me, and Mick jumped up and took a few pictures of us with a Polaroid. He gave these to me, which I thought was really nice…and I really cherish that picture. They really tried to make me feel comfortable, which was great. These guys were my heroes…I never expected to get the job, but I was honored to be considered. I’ll never forget that till the day I day… a high point of my life!
Then a few years ago, I did a tour with Graham Parker. He’s an incredible songwriter, and he totally let us play our instruments as we saw fit. I even played lap steel guitar on two songs, which was great! That was the first time I’ve ever played lap steel on tour. Since then, I kinda haven’t been as into going on the road, I’ve been doing a lot of stuff in New York. I’ve got a few other interests going, including playing on some up and coming people’s stuff. I’ve gotten into midi and sequencing, I’ve written some music for film projects.
I’m producing a young singer-songwriter by the name of K.P. Devlin, and he’s not signed yet but we’re trying…I think we made a really great record for him, which rocks but still in the singer-songwriter base. Andrew Carillo plays guitar on it, Eric Parker and Steve Holley play drums on it, T-Bone Wolk plays accordion on it.. Tony Garnier plays standup bass on one tune, I play bass on the rest. We’re gonna try to get this boy a deal if we can.
I also do some gigs at the Jersey shore two or three times a month with John Eddie, who fronts a great rock and roll band.
I think I’d like to go on the road again, in the right situation, especially since I’m in my mid-40’s.
TG: Any interest in doing your own project?
KA: Nah… my thing has always been playing bass for other people. I love being a sideman to really good people. There’s already a lot of crap in this world and I don’t want to contribute to it (laughs). I would rather play bass with people who write great music. Just want to say that I’ve always had a lot of respect for the instrument and the role it plays in a group. I really like being part of making music come alive. I really liked doing your project, too, it rocks and we got a lot accomplished in a relatively short timeframe. As long as I can keep making music, I’d be very happy with it.
TG: Kenny, its been a pleasure talking to you. Any message you want to leave our readers with?
KA: Thanks to everyone for their support. Oh, by the way, I’ve just finished Ian McDonald’s long awaited album, and am playing with him at the Long Island guitar show May 15th. Stop by and say hello!
Kenny Aaronson appears on the Mambo Sons debut cd "Mambo Sons." For more information, click HERE.
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